Nygard’s patient pursuit of NHL dream leads to golden Oilers opportunity

James Neal scores a rebound goal against the Winnipeg Jets in his preseason debut with the Edmonton Oilers.

EDMONTON — Joakim Nygard isn’t like every other Swede who comes West searching for a National Hockey League job. First of all, he is 26 years old. And something else, he and girlfriend Lisa named their recently-born son Todd.

Ever meet a Swede named Todd? Neither had they.

"Only 32 persons in Sweden with that name," said Joakim Nygard. "I looked on Google."

The good news for Nygard Jr.? He won’t have his first name mispronounced nearly as much as his last name. Pronounced "YO-akim NIGH-gard," Todd’s old man is finally ready to test the waters here in North America, after playing a full six seasons in the top Swedish League with Oscar Klefbom’s old team, Farjestads.

"Of course it was always a dream to come over, but when I was 20, 21, 22, I wasn’t good enough to come here," he said. "And it’s a big change: New country, new language… Everything is new."

His agent told him a year ago that he could find Nygard an NHL deal, but the left winger backed off. "I wasn’t ready. I wanted to stay in Sweden for one more year, to develop me as a hockey player even more."

So he went out and finished second in goals in the SHL, scoring 21 times in 21 different games. He didn’t have a two-goal game, sniping in 21 of his club’s 52 games. "I had twice, like, seven games in a row where I scored a goal."

In his first pre-season action Monday night, he showed flashes of what the Oilers hope to see, in a 2-0 Oilers win over the Winnipeg Jets. There is speed and there are hands, but the two did not always intersect in a scrambly affair that opened the pre-season.

"I’ve always been pretty fast," Nygard said. "I can jump high, jump long. I never competed in (track and field), but I was the best one in school. I have always been a fast skater."

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In today’s game, that is an entry point. Coming over at 26, from the ultra-defensive Swedish league, we’ll assume Nygard knows how to defend. Now, can he give the Oilers 10-15 goals coming off the left side? That would be gold, Jerry.

"I don’t think he understands how fast he is," said Klefbom, who skated with Nygard back home this past summer. He is something else. Crazy fast — really explosive. He will create a lot, and not only for himself. But for all our guys.

"Time will be the biggest difference for him. I know what it’s like over there, where you can create your own time, because you have three seconds. Here, people are on you."

Nygard is the son of a realtor and a mother who is a maternity ward nurse, and his delivery to the NHL comes at a time when a swift Euro can come in handy for Edmonton. In fact, the new NHL might be a better place for speed and skill than the Swedish League, where the big ice and strict defensive systems rule the day.

"You come here, you beat a guy coming out of the corner, you have a scoring chance. You beat a guy in the corner in Sweden, and you have two more guys to beat," he said. "I am good in one-on-one situations, so hopefully I can create a lot of chances here too."

Nygard hopped inside to create an excellent chance in the third period, perhaps a flash of what’s to come. With Leon Draisaitl locked in at first-line left wing, Oilers head coach Dave Tippett would love some speed and skill at the second left wing, where he had Sam Gagner playing alongside Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and James Neal on Monday.

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Jujhar Khaira is in the mix, as is Tyler Benson and Gagner. But the job is open for the taking.

Wide open, really.

"(Nygard) is an interesting guy right now," said Tippett. "A really determined player right now. You watch him in that (Sunday intrasquad game), he was one of the best players out there. He’s got a tenacity about him, he’s got skill… He’s a real player to watch for us. He looks good out there so far."

Left wing is a bit of a black hole in Edmonton, assuming Neal — who scored Monday — sets up shop on Nugent-Hopkins’ right side. Benson might be ready, but the fallback will be to give him some more time in AHL Bakersfield. Khaira is best suited as a bottom-six forward.

Nygard might be the man for the job, though walking right into an NHL top-six from Sweden is a mighty tall order.

"It is a different game," Klefbom said. "It’s faster; it’s more physical; it’s tighter. But I think that‘s going to fit him well. The game over here, it is in his favour. He’s really explosive, in his first couple of strides."

Nygard has already had his ‘ah hah moment,’ when he practiced with Connor McDavid for the first time.

"Oh my God. Unbelievable," he gushed. "I knew he was good, but when you see him on the ice live, you can’t imagine how good he is. It’s sick."


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